The Telegraph Book of the First World War edited by Gavin Fuller

the telegraph book of the first world warFrom our own correspondent…

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The Daily Telegraph is one of Britain’s most prestigious newspapers, established in 1855. This book brings together a selection of the news reports and articles printed in the paper during the First World War, at a time when for most people their daily newspaper was their only source of information.

There is a very informative introduction, written by Michael Wright, discussing the role of newspapers in general and The Telegraph in particular as organs of propaganda throughout the war. Much of the information they printed, especially in the early days of the war, was controlled by the War Office and, indeed, there was a feeling amongst parts of the Government, including Winston Churchill, that the course of the war should be reported entirely from London. However, permission was given for correspondents to travel to the war-zones, and while reporting was still restricted and censored, the experienced and talented correspondents were still able to give vivid accounts of events soon after they happened.

Between the two parapets of these adversaries, so near to each other, corpses lie, mud-caked, rotting, in their last tragic gesture – German corpses and Italian. The air of death is all around; a heaviness as of sepulchre pervades the life in the trench. A German lies on the parapet of the enemy’s trenches. He thrusts out his hands and his head from the trench. No one pulls him in or casts him forth. You see the spikes of helmets pass and repass this horror tranquilly. It is an indifference terrifying and splendid. Death has become a familiar. He is always there; he comes and goes, tapping this or that one on the shoulder, gathers all, and for those who fall is neither shuddering nor respect. A dead body is a companion who sleeps and will not waken.

13th February 1915

The articles and reports are given entirely without footnotes or contextual explanation, and there are no notes at the end of the book. At first I found this an exceptionally strange editorial decision, especially given the advance warning in the introduction that the truth and accuracy of the reporting could not always be relied on. Since my knowledge of the conduct and progress of the war could at best be described as sketchy, I was sure, rightly, that I wouldn’t spot where the reporting veered from what we are now told by historians.

This feeling lasted for the first hundred pages or so, when I suddenly realised that I wasn’t reading the book as history any more, or at least not as war history. The lack of notes in fact put me in the same position as any contemporary reader of the paper – I had no other sources of information so had to rely on the reports entirely, and try to see through the words to the truth they were revealing, distorting, exaggerating or minimising. I don’t know if that was the reason for the decision not to annotate the book but, whether or no, it turned out to be incredibly effective in giving me an insight into how it must have been for the mothers, fathers, wives of soldiers and sailors far away and in mortal danger. And that had the odd effect of giving me a different perspective on the use of propaganda in such situations. I began to feel that, if I was the mother of a son on the Western Front, of course I would want to be told that morale was high, that the food was good, that the Tommies were better equipped than Fritz. Of course I’d want to think they were singing Tipperary as they marched to the Front, that they were achieving something, that their deaths were not wasted. Because, if it were my son and I was powerless to help him, how would it help me to know that for the most part the soldiers were dying for nothing?

The men who were going up to the battle grinned back at those who were coming out. One could not see the faces of the lying-down cases, only the soles of their boots as they passed; but the laughing men on the courier – some of them stripped to the waist and bandaged roughly – seemed to rob war of some of its horror, and the spirit of our British soldiers shows very bright along the roads of France, so that the very sun seems to get some of its gold from these men’s hearts.

Tonight the guns are at work again, and the sky is flushed as the shells burst, over there where our men are fighting.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914 Photo: The Telegraph
British troops newly arrived in France in August 1914
Photo: The Telegraph

That’s not to suggest that the correspondents didn’t paint a starkly horrifying picture of the war-zones – they did, and some of the images will haunt me for a long time to come. But they tended to ‘spin’ it so that the rotting corpses and body parts embedded in the mud and trenches are almost invariably German, and it’s the Germans who commit the horrors like releasing poison gas – when the Brits do it, it’s only in perfectly fair retaliation. German poison gas kills civilians, Allied poison gas is much more discriminating. However, they also frequently express admiration for the enemy – his courage, his gallantry – especially in the sections relating to the war in the air. One of the things that struck me most was how much more similar the fighting was in style to the wars of the nineteenth century than to the later wars of the twentieth. We see the progression from a ‘traditional’ war with cavalry and bayonets, to the tanks and aircraft of the later days of the conflict.

At that moment neither in France nor in England had the question of gas as a weapon even been considered. It was, indeed, months after the Germans began the use of gas that Commissions were appointed in England and France to commence the study of the question, and more months again elapsed before we had prepared any gas at all. Finally, when we did start using gas, all we had were tear bombs, with which we tried to reply to much more dangerous gases sent over by the Germans.

The German reply to the Geneva Red Cross is thus the most cynical lie even the German Government has ever been guilty of. It is satisfactory, by the way, to learn from those who know that for a considerable time past the enemy is being paid back in his own coin, and that though late in this field of scientific barbarism we now have gases that are worse than any German gases.

25th September 1918

The book is enormously wide-ranging. The sections on the war itself don’t just concentrate on the Brits; there are reports about the contributions of all of the Allied nations and some from the other side too. (Scots, Irish and Welsh people should note that most of the journalists refer to Britain as England throughout, but they do mention nationalities when discussing specific regiments.) The Russian Revolution is covered – not in depth, but enough to give a flavour of how bewildering it must have been at the time. And there’s lots of stuff about the ‘home-front’ too – the civilian effort, the munitions workers, the land workers, the internment of enemy aliens. We hear about food supplies, about the American Santa ships bringing toys for the children of the servicemen on both sides in the period when they remained neutral. And we are shown the pressure that was put on young men, especially single men, to ‘volunteer’, with the word ‘shirker’ being thrown around freely by politicians and journalists alike.

The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914 Photo: The Telegraph
The London Scottish Regiment becomes the first Territorial regiment to see action 05-11-1914
Photo: The Telegraph

The quality of the writing itself is astonishingly high, filled with passion and poignancy, and sometimes reaching towards poetry. There are articles from literary figures here, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Rudyard Kipling, but it’s the reports from the professional journalists that have most impact. No dry reporting of facts and figures here – these are vivid word pictures that evoked a whole range of emotions in me, sorrow, anger, horror, grief and, more unexpectedly, pride, admiration, and a fierce desire to see the Allies win. If these reports could affect me like that one hundred years on and knowing something of the truth, how much more effective must they have been at the time?

Shells were rushing through the air as though all the trains in the world were driving at express speed through endless tunnels, in which they met each other with frightful collisions. Some of these shells, fired from batteries not far from where I stood, ripped the sky with a high, tearing note. Other shells whistled with that strange, gobbling, sibilant cry which makes one’s bowels turn cold. Through the mist and the smoke there came sharp, loud, insistent knocks, as separate batteries fired salvoes, and great clangorous strokes, as if iron doors banged suddenly, and the tattoo of the light field-guns playing the drums of Death.

3rd July 1916 – The Somme

This is a massive book – 570 large pages of small print and no illustrations. It’s beautifully printed on high quality paper and is a tactile delight, despite its fairly considerable weight. I found it fascinating, absorbing and moving, and it has given me a real feeling for what it must have been like for the people left at home, desperate for news, and totally dependent on the brave men who put themselves in danger to tell the story of the war. If they didn’t always get it right, if they allowed themselves to be used for propaganda purposes from time to time, they still provided an invaluable service to their readers, and now again to modern readers in giving an insight into how the war was seen at the time. One I would highly recommend to anyone interested either in the war itself or in the social history of the period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Aurum Press Ltd.

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Rebellion: The History of England Vol. III (aka Civil War) by Peter Ackroyd

rebellionA plague on all their houses…

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The time of the doomed Stuart dynasty (in England) has always been one of those periods where I felt I knew the basics but didn’t really understand the ins-and-outs of it all. Peter Ackroyd’s history takes us from the accession of James I (VI of Scotland) to the throne of England on the death of Elizabeth in 1603, through to the flight of James II (VII) to France and the arrival of William of Orange and Mary in 1688. Since this is the third book in what I understand is to be a six-book series, Ackroyd doesn’t delve much into the pre-Stuart era, nor does he say much about what happened after the events he is describing, but that doesn’t present problems because he thoroughly explains the main players and factions as he goes along.

And what a bunch they were! I don’t think I’ve ever read about a war where I so emphatically felt that I didn’t want to support either side. While the Stuarts seem to have been a particularly inept, corrupt and often depraved crowd of absolutist monarchs, the Parliamentarians come across as a bunch of deeply unpleasant, power-hungry, money-grubbing, squabbling incompetents (the start of a proud Parliamentary tradition we carry on to this day). When Cromwell’s military dictatorship begins to look like the good times, then it gives an indication of the awfulness of the alternatives. What a pity M. Guillotin hadn’t been born yet…

Charles I by van Dyck
Charles I by van Dyck

Ackroyd’s style is very accessible and he incorporates quotes from many contemporaneous sources – not just the people in power, but many fairly ordinary onlookers who give a flavour of the despair that must have been felt by the pawns in this bloody chess-game. Of course, we still can’t hear the voices of the illiterate poor, but Ackroyd shows the impact on them of the various machinations of both sides, and the manipulation of them, usually via the various religious factions. Ackroyd also looks at the plays and writings that were produced at the time, showing how they were influenced by events, and how they would have been understood by the audiences of the day. And he discusses the impact of plague and fire, both as physical events and as how they would have been perceived symbolically.

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper

As well as this clear picture of events in England, Ackroyd also sets the story well into the international context. He manages to keep the reader on top of all the shifting treaties and loyalties, showing how dependant international affairs were on personal relationships at that time. We get a feel for the beginnings of the various European empires and how important that was becoming in determining alliances and enmities. And he reminds the reader that both Scotland and Ireland, now linked to England by a shared monarchy, played important roles in providing support or distraction to the English factions.

Overall, this is a very readable and interesting account of the period, written in a way that makes it easy for the non-academic reader to follow. It’s certainly left me feeling much clearer about the reasons behind the events and the personalities of the people involved. I appreciated that he didn’t romanticise either side – his treatment felt very even-handed to me. But I’m afraid the question of whether I’d have wanted to be a Roundhead or a Cavalier remains unresolved – Cavalier probably, but only on the grounds that their hairdos were more fun…

Charles II (eat your heart out, Kenny G...)
Charles II

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

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The Churchill Factor by Boris Johnson read by Simon Shepherd

the churchill factorBlood, toil, tears and sweat…

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Winston Churchill needs no introduction and, in the UK, nor does Boris Johnson, but perhaps he does elsewhere. Boris is one of those few people who are known to all by their first names – if you mention Boris over here, everyone will assume that it’s this Boris you mean unless you specify otherwise. A leading light in the Conservative Party, he has been the Mayor of London for the last six years and is strongly tipped in many quarters to be a future leader of the Party and possibly a future Prime Minister. This is pretty spectacular for a man who is best known for being exceptionally funny on panel games, having a silly hairstyle and being an upper-class buffoon who would fit in well in the Drones Club. But that public persona doesn’t quite hide the other facts about Boris, that he is a highly intelligent, extremely knowledgeable and articulate man, whose political ambitions reach to the very top. Prior to going into active politics he was a political journalist and editor so he knows how to write entertainingly and engagingly. You may already have guessed that I have a huge soft spot for Boris – it’s just unfortunate he’s as right-wing as Mrs Thatcher. But it’s that ability to camouflage his views under his larger-than-life personality that enables him to attract voters who wouldn’t normally vote for his party.

As for his amazing achievement in winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, it is conventional to treat this as a joke, an embarrassing attempt by the Swedes to make up for their neutrality in the war. Even relatively sympathetic historians such as Peter Clarke have dismissed the possibility that there was any merit involved. “Rarely can an author’s writings have received less attention than the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953,” he says. This is not just a little bit snooty, but surely untrue. Look at the list of Nobel winners in the last century – avant-garde Japanese playwrights, Marxist-Feminist Latin Americans, Polish exponents of the Concrete Poem. All of them are no doubt meritorious in their way but many of them are much less read than Churchill.

In this book, Boris sets out to try to discover what made Churchill into the man who is considered to have been crucial in the British war effort. He does this with his usual panache, making the book hugely enjoyable and filled with humour, which doesn’t disguise the massive amount of research and knowledge that has clearly gone into it. He makes it crystal clear that he admires Churchill intensely and, because he’s so open about it, his bias in the great man’s favour comes over as wholly endearing. In fact, this reader couldn’t help feeling that Boris sees Churchill as something of a role model, and that his desire to understand how Churchill achieved all that he did is partly so that Boris can emulate him – hopefully not by becoming a great leader in another World War though! (Though I suspect Boris might be a little sorry he missed the last one…)

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill

In each chapter, Boris looks at one aspect of Churchill’s life – his childhood, his writing, his early army career in the Boer War etc – and analyses it to see what we can draw from it in terms of what made Churchill tick. Over the years, Churchill has had as many detractors as admirers, and Boris takes their criticisms of him head on, dismissing them with his usual mix of bluster and brilliance. That’s not to say he brushes over the big mistakes in Churchill’s career, but he puts them into context and finds that he consistently acted in accordance with his own convictions. (If only we could say that about many of today’s politicians.) This didn’t always make him popular but, had popularity been his main aim, he probably wouldn’t have stood out so strongly against coming to some accommodation with Nazi Germany at the point where Britain stood isolated and close to defeat. Boris makes it clear that he believes that it was Churchill, and Churchill alone, who carried the argument in the Government for Britain to fight on, and who was crucial in persuading the US to finally become involved.

…if he was exhausting to work for, his colleagues nonetheless gave him loyalty and unstinting devotion. When he came back from New York in 1932 after nearly dying under the wheels of an on-coming car, he was presented with a Daimler. The Daimler had been organised by Brendan Bracken and financed by a whip-round of 140 friends and admirers. Can you think of any modern British politician with enough friends and admirers to get them a new Nissan Micra, let alone a Daimler?

Although there is a considerable amount in the book about WW2, as you would expect, there is just as much about Churchill’s achievements and failures both before and after. In a political career that stretched for over 60 years, he was involved to one degree or another in all of the major events in the UK, and indeed the world, from the 1900s to the 1960s – the Boer War, WW1, the establishment of Israel, the abdication of Edward VIII, the decline of the British Empire, the rise of the Soviet Union, the formation of the Common Market (now European Union). Boris shows how he was often at first a lone voice, perceptive through his deep understanding of history and politics, with other people dismissing him until he was proved right (or occasionally wrong). He also shows how Churchill was capable of changing his mind over time and admitting to it – for example, over women, where their contribution to the war effort persuaded him they should be entitled to rights he had previously argued against. A conviction politician certainly, but not hog-tied by it.

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson

There’s so much in the book that I’ve missed out far more than I’ve included – Churchill’s writing, art, speech-making, personal bravery, etc., etc. It is however a surprisingly compact read considering the ground it covers. It’s not a full biography – it doesn’t set out to be. Boris has selected those events and episodes that he feels cast most light on the character of the man and what formed it – the Churchill Factor, as he calls it. It’s brilliantly written, as entertaining as it is informative and insightful, and I feel it casts nearly as much light on the character of the author as the subject. For anyone who still thinks Boris is the buffoon he plays so well, this might come as a real eye-opener. And for those of us who already know that, like the iceberg, the important bit of Boris is the bit you rarely see, this reminds us that we better decide soon if we really want to buy tickets for the Titanic.

There are Churchill nightclubs and bars and pubs – about twenty pubs in Britain bear his name and puglike visage, far more than bear the name of any other contemporary figure. Sometimes it is easy to understand the semiotic function of the name – you can see why a pub-owner might want to go for Churchill. He is the world’s greatest advertisement for the benefits of alcohol. But why is there a Churchill Escort Agency? And what do they offer, apart from blood, toil, tears and sweat?

Simon Shepherd
Simon Shepherd

As if two huge personalities aren’t enough for one book, I listened to the Audible audiobook version, which is beautifully narrated by another of the great loves of my life (yes, I know there’s a lot of them…), Simon Shepherd, who has one of the loveliest voices known to man (or woman) and the perfect rather plummy accent for this kind of book. It’s a great narration that does full justice to the book – held my attention throughout, which doesn’t always happen with audiobooks. In fact, I found myself frequently doing that ‘just one more chapter’ thing which normally only happens with the written word. Going to bed each night with Winston, Boris and Simon has been a lot more fun than you might imagine…

NB This audiobook was provided for review by Audible UK.

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Audible UK Link
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Audible US Link

A Spy Among Friends by Ben Macintyre

a spy among friendsEt tu, Philby?

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The post-war Cambridge spy ring holds an endless and rather strange fascination – a group of men who betrayed their country and its allies to the Soviet regime for the most nebulous of reasons and whose actions are considered to have cost many lives. And yet somehow they are held up as anti-heroes, a bit like the Great Train Robbers or Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a strange phenomenon and one that always leaves me feeling a bit conflicted. So it was with a mix of anticipation and apprehension that I started to read this one about the infamous ‘Third Man’, Kim Philby (the inspiration behind Graham Greene’s screenplay for the film of that name). Ben Macintyre is a journalist by trade and has written several books about real-life spies. In this one he has approached his subject by looking at the friendships that to a large extent shielded Philby from discovery for years, even after suspicions had become aroused.

Kim Philby
Kim Philby

Philby had already become a Soviet agent before he joined MI6. Like all the spies, he would claim this was because he was convinced by the arguments of communism – but, again like them all, that didn’t stop him living as lavish and hedonistic a lifestyle as he possibly could. Rather than making him stand out, his heavy drinking and constant partying meant that he fitted in perfectly to the overgrown-boys’ club that was MI6 at that time. (Oh, how I wish I believed it was different now…) And this is really the point that Macintyre is making in this book – that MI6 in particular was filled by the upper-classes, selected not so much for their characters as their families and old school ties, and living in a kind of closed community where they didn’t talk to outsiders but revealed secrets casually to each other on the grounds that of course they could all trust each other.

Macintyre tells the parallel story of Nicholas Elliott, a loyal servant of the Crown, who was (or thought he was) Philby’s closest friend and confidant. As they both rose in their careers, Elliott admired Philby’s charm as much as his skills as a fellow spy. Philby was also particularly close to the flamboyant and outrageously behaved Guy Burgess, and won over James Jesus Angleton, who was on a simultaneous rise through the ranks of the newly formed CIA, and would later become Chief of its Counterintelligence branch. When Burgess was finally outed as a double-agent and fled to Moscow along with Donald Maclean, Elliott and Angleton were pivotal in deflecting suspicion from Philby as a possibility for the ‘third man’ known to still be operating. When the truth finally became unavoidable, Elliott was given the task of trying to get a confession from Philby – a task complicated by his conflicting feelings of friendship and betrayal.

Orson Welles in The Third Man
Orson Welles in The Third Man

I found the first few chapters of the book a bit tedious, as Macintyre would stray from the main thrust of the book to describe some of the exploits of various spies not really directly involved in the Philby story. I suspect however that these bits would appeal to someone with more interest in spying games than I have. But once the story focused on the path towards Philby’s eventual downfall I found myself gripped by it. Macintyre is a good storyteller and the book felt well researched. By the time he got to the crux of the matter, I felt that I knew the major participants well and this meant that I could sympathise with Elliott in his anger and disappointment. I was pleased that Macintyre didn’t try to show Philby as any kind of hero – he made it clear that his actions had led to many deaths, not just of spies on both sides, but of other people caught up in the games he played. He showed Philby as a curiously amoral character, whose charm gave him an appearance of warmth belied by the coldness of his actions. I didn’t feel, however, that Macintyre gave a particularly plausible reason for Philby’s seeming loyalty to the Soviet regime – perhaps there isn’t one. It seemed that he perhaps just liked the excitement of fooling everyone.

Ben Macintyre
Ben Macintyre

An interesting story that tells as much about the class-ridden power structures of British society as it does about Philby and Elliott – a class that sometimes puts loyalty to its own members above all other considerations, including patriotism. Have things changed since then? I guess it might be another fifty years before we really find out the answer to that question…

Thanks again to Lady Fancifull, whose great review brought this book to my attention. You can also see her review of another of Macintyre’s books, Double Cross – The True Story Of The D-Day Spies, here.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing.

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Ten Cities that Made an Empire by Tristram Hunt

The sun never sets…

 

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

After sporting pastimes and the English language (to which might be added Anglicism, the parliamentary system and Common Law), Jan Morris has described urbanism as ‘the most lasting of the British imperial legacies’.

ten citiesTristram Hunt, historian and Member of (the British) Parliament, has chosen an innovative way to look at the history and legacy of the British Empire by considering ten of the cities that played important roles in the two centuries when the Empire was at its height. There can be a tendency to think that the Empire came into being at some defined point, existed for a while, and then ceased. Hunt’s city tour gives a much clearer picture of how the Empire was always evolving, always changing, as global events raised and lowered the importance of products and markets – and he makes it very clear that the Empire’s primary purpose was indeed economic rather than political, at least initially. Hunt admits that there were many other cities with as good a claim to be included as the ones he chose, but his purpose is to show how the Empire shifted geographically and politically over time and his choices work well for this purpose.

Starting with Boston, Hunt sets the pattern he subsequently follows with each city. He gives the reasons for the city’s founding (or colonisation if it already existed), explains its importance to the development of the Empire, describes the culture of the society and discusses how the city developed physically in terms of its architecture and industrial or trading infrastructure.

"The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor" - 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier of what later became known as the Boston Tea Party.
“The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor” – 1846 lithograph by Nathaniel Currier of what later became known as the Boston Tea Party.

The book is not immensely long, so each city only gets around forty pages. This is long enough to give a reasonable overview of the city’s place within the Empire, but clearly Hunt has had to set himself some limitations to keep the length down. The major limitation for me was that he only told us about each city at the point that it was at its height in terms of Empire. As the Empire rolled on and away, we aren’t given much feel for what happened to the cities afterwards. This is truer of the early cities more than the late ones – Boston is more or less dropped at the point of Independence while the current political situation of Hong Kong is briefly discussed. At first, I found this abrupt departure from each city very disconcerting, but as the book went on it became clear that Hunt was portraying the Empire like a wave or perhaps a bandwagon that rolled into town, changed everything, and then rolled on. I found that in the end it did give me a much clearer picture of how all the various geographic bits fitted in at different points in history.

Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, formerly known as Viceroy's House, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.
Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi, formerly known as Viceroy’s House, was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens.

So from America, Hunt takes us to the West Indies, stops off in Dublin, and then heads east – to Africa, China and, of course, India. India’s importance to the Empire is indicated by the fact that three of its cities are covered – Calcutta, Bombay and New Delhi, showing how the Empire in India developed from an initial trading zone to the full scale colonial undertaking it eventually became before gaining independence. Hunt balances the book well between the colonies and the Dominions, showing how the Dominions were seen as a means of disseminating British values and of building an interconnected anglicised world that would come to the support of the mother-country in times of need (as indeed they did in both WW1 and WW2). He finishes off with a look at Liverpool, the only British city to merit a chapter, showing its importance as a trading hub under the Empire and discussing the economically devastating effects, still being dealt with today, of the end of Empire.

The strange and macabre Nelson Monument in Liverpool - the first public sculpture to be erected in the city at the height of its prominence as a major trading hub of the Empire. Along with a nude nelson, there are four prisoners in chains (representing Nelson's major battles apparently, but somehow more resonant now of the city's involvement in the slave trade...)
The strange and macabre Nelson Monument in Liverpool – the first public sculpture to be erected in the city at the height of its prominence as a major trading hub of the Empire. Along with a nude Admiral Lord Nelson, there are four prisoners in chains (representing Nelson’s major victories apparently, but it has been suggested they might also have been making a veiled statement about the cruelty of the slave trade…)
Tristram Hunt
Tristram Hunt

While I was glad that the book was kept down to a reasonable length, I’d have liked to learn more about what happened to the cities post-Empire, and I’d have been happy to sacrifice some of the architectural detail to make way for that. However, I think that’s probably more a matter of personal preference than a criticism. All-in-all, I found this an interesting and well written read that took an innovative approach to telling the much-told story of the Empire, and recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about how the Empire worked. I read an advance copy of the book, so can’t comment on the illustrations, but I believe there are over forty colour plates plus maps in the final copy, which I imagine would greatly enhance the enjoyment of the book.

The Ten Cities are: Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Bombay, Melbourne, New Delhi, Liverpool.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Penguin Books (UK).

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Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life by John Campbell

roy jenkins2An affectionate portrait…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Roy Jenkins was one of the most influential British Labour politicians of the second half of the twentieth century. The son of a miner, he was however far from working-class. His father had risen to become a successful Member of Parliament and made sure his son was given an advantageous education culminating in an Oxford degree. His socialism therefore was always of an intellectual kind rather than being rooted in the unions as his father’s had been. And like many socialists, especially of that era, he gradually moved from the left towards the centre. A prominent Cabinet minister in the ’60s and ’70s, Jenkins held at different times two of the great offices of state, as Home Secretary and Chancellor, and was accounted to be successful in both positions. In the first role he is credited with pushing through the socially liberal legislation that some later claimed led to the ‘permissive society’, while as Chancellor he was seen as having transformed the balance of trade and fiscal position of the UK, which were still suffering from the aftermath of WW2. Consistently pro-Europe, he was one of the strongest proponents for Britain’s entry to the Common Market.

The Gang of Four who led the breakaway SDP Party - David Owen, Shorley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Bill Rodgers.
The Gang of Four who led the breakaway SDP Party – Bill Rodgers, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and David Owen.

Had the tensions between left and right within the Labour Party not become so toxic during the 1970s, there is very little doubt that Jenkins would have become party leader and quite probably Prime Minister. Instead, he decided to leave parliament to take up the post of President of the European Commission. But on his return, when the Labour Party was showing every sign of lurching even further to the Left, Jenkins ended up leading the breakaway group that was briefly known as the Social Democratic Party, before merging with the Liberal Party to become the Lib-Dems we (in the UK) all know and love today. Jenkins returned to Parliament for a while as MP for Glasgow Hillhead, but it was soon clear that the SDP was not going to fulfil the hopes of its followers by replacing the Labour Party as one of the two major parties in Britain, and Jenkins was defeated at the next election.

Alongside this lengthy political career, Jenkins had a second career, perhaps equally successful and certainly more lucrative, as a journalist and political biographer of, amongst others, Asquith and Churchill. Add in a complicated personal life, and a huge network of friendships with many of the most influential people of his time, and it’s clear that any biographer of Jenkins himself has his work cut out for him.

John Campbell
John Campbell

John Campbell is the author of many political biographies and won the 1994 NCR Award for his biography of Edward Heath. He admits in the introduction to this book that he admired Jenkins a good deal, and hopes that he has not allowed this to stop him being critical when required. I, on the other hand, always found Jenkins to be a pompous, arrogant buffoon who was serially disloyal to the parties to which he belonged. So the question for me was whether Campbell would be able to persuade me that I, in my youthful ignorance, had misjudged the man.

The biography is hugely long and detailed, but written with a clarity and flow that make it a pleasurable read. I kept feeling that surely something could have been cut to make the size more manageable, but concluded eventually that it was the fullness and complexity of Jenkins’ life that led to the length, rather than any failing on the part of the author. There is a fairly heavy emphasis on Jenkins’ personal life in the early part of the book – specifically his relationships with Tony Crosland (another Labour politician), then his wife and his multiple mistresses. But happily, once Campbell had made his point about the unconventionality of Jenkins lifestyle (or perhaps one should say conventionality, since it bears comparison with that of politicians of earlier days), he allows the subject to fade into the background and concentrates much more on the political side of his life.

The wedding of Roy and Jennifer Jenkins - a marriage that lasted till Jenkins' death despite his many affairs.
The wedding of Roy and Jennifer Jenkins – a marriage that lasted till Jenkins’ death despite his many affairs.

I did feel that Campbell’s partiality for Jenkins showed through too clearly in some places, letting him off the hook on occasion, and giving him a little more praise than necessary. In general, though, I prefer affectionate biographies to hatchet jobs, so overall Campbell’s approach worked well for me. I was somewhat less keen on the way he portrayed some of the politicians on the left if the Labour Party – it wasn’t so much that I disagreed with his depiction of them as that I felt he adopted an almost sneering tone at times that led his account to feel as if it were being somewhat biased by his own personal political stance.

Overall, though, I found this a well written and hugely informative biography. While sticking closely to his subject, Campbell sets Jenkins’ life in the context of the times at all stages and as such this is also a revealing look at the wider political history of the second half of the twentieth century. Jenkins lived a well-rounded life indeed, never allowing the pressures of his various roles to get in the way of the more hedonistic side of his nature, but Campbell convinced this reader at least that the charge of laziness that was sometimes made against him was unfair. While I still stand by pompous and arrogant, Campbell has persuaded me that I must retract the word ‘buffoon’ – no-one who achieved so much in so many fields deserves that title. And while he was disloyal to his parties, it seems he remained loyal to his core beliefs, which in the end may be more honourable – so I acquit him of that charge. Jenkins’ life was a full and interesting one, and this biography does its subject justice – highly recommended (to political nerds like me, that is, not to normal folk).

In his later life, Jenkins was a high-profile and well regarded Chancellor of Oxford University.
In his later life, Jenkins was a high-profile and well regarded Chancellor of Oxford University.

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Elizabeth of York by Alison Weir

elizabeth of yorkMay or may not, that is the question…

😦 😦

At what stage does biography become pointless? I would suggest that the answer to that question is when the historical record doesn’t provide enough information to allow for any real insight into or knowledge of the subject. And that, in a nutshell, is why I have abandoned this book at the halfway point.

Elizabeth of York probably had a fascinating life. She may have been in love with her husband, Henry VII. On the other hand, she may have been cruelly treated and suppressed by him. Or perhaps he loved her. Maybe she was seriously affected by the probable murders of her brothers. Or perhaps she was so ambitious for the throne that she tried to persuade Richard III, the probable murderer, to marry her. She may have conspired against Richard to bring Henry to the throne – a ballad written during Henry’s reign suggests so, though that hardly seems like substantive evidence. Or perhaps she had nothing to do with it at all. She may have been influential on Henry in many ways following her marriage. Or she may have done little more than breed heirs. Interesting questions, and I was hoping for interesting answers – but there are none, as Weir freely and repeatedly asserts.

Elizabeth of York and Henry VII Credit: © Stapleton Collection/Corbis
Elizabeth of York and Henry VII
Credit: © Stapleton Collection/Corbis

Weir has, I assume, done her best with the available material, but I’m afraid that still leaves Elizabeth as an unknown entity. In fact, I felt I knew her better from reading Thomas Penn’s Winter King, than I do now after reading chapter after chapter of lightly supported and indecisive speculation. It’s good that Weir has made clear the lack of information rather than making assertions about her own beliefs as if they were truths. Admirable – but makes for a dull and rather pointless read. And I’m afraid Weir’s writing style is not sufficient to carry the book – she writes in a dry academic fashion that, for me at least, fails to bring the characters to life and makes even the most dramatic episodes into a tedious recounting of conflicting sources, including extensive quotes, much of which I felt could happily have been relegated to the notes at the back for the use of any serious historian. As a casual reader, I hope for the historian to plough through the sources on my behalf and then present me with a well argued and convincing hypothesis.

Alison Weir
Alison Weir

The final point where I decided that I couldn’t take any more was when Weir suggested that Elizabeth ‘may have been influential in the development of royal pageantry’. The ‘evidence’ for this is that she would have seen the Burgundian-influenced pageantry at the court of her father, Edward IV. It’s that crucial word ‘may’, with its unspoken implication of ‘or may not’. I could as easily say ‘Elizabeth may have been one of the world’s foremost acrobats’ and bring just about the same amount of evidence to bear – i.e., she doubtless saw tumblers and fools at her father’s court too. And I’m afraid ‘may’ is one of the words most used in the book. (338 times, according to the Kindle search facility.)

So in conclusion this book ‘may’ be of interest to some people – in fact, clearly it is since it is garnering some positive reviews. But I’m afraid I’m not one of them. Perhaps at some point I’ll try one of Weir’s books about a later period in history where enough evidence exists for the word ‘may’ to be replaced by something a little more substantial. In the meantime, I will assume, based on the evidence of this book, that Elizabeth of York may have to remain an enigmatic figure about whom too little is known to allow for an interesting biography to be written.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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The Tudors: A Very Short Introduction by John Guy

A romp through history…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

the tudorsThe Very Short Introduction series from Oxford University Press began in 1995 and now lists more than 300 titles, according to this book’s blurb. I’ve seen positive (and not so positive) reviews of several of the titles, but this is the first one I’ve read. I thought that starting with a subject I’m familiar with would give me an opportunity to see how well the book captures the essentials.

First off, the book is not only Very Short but also very small – with a very small font. So handy to carry in a pocket or bag, so long as you don’t need to tote along your reading lamp and magnifying glass. However, it is well laid out and contains some illustrations to break up the text. The reading material in this one runs to 129 pages, plus a list of further reading, a chronology and an index. Handily it also has a genealogical table and a note explaining the value of currencies.

Written by John Guy, one of my favourite historians, I expected the history to be accurate and well-presented, and it is. It’s roughly divided into a chapter per monarch (from Henry VII to Elizabeth I, who gets two in recognition of the length of her reign), with a couple of extra chapters on the Reformation and on Arts and Culture. You can tell from the scope that this must therefore be an exceedingly quick romp through the period. It gives the basics, but not much more. I found it pretty unsatisfying in the early parts where I was most familiar with the history – up to about mid-way through Elizabeth’s reign. I felt the facts were there, but I didn’t get much feel for the personalities or the international picture. However, when we reached the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, about which I knew very little, it seemed much more rewarding. So I concluded that the error was mine – I should probably have read one on a subject about which I know nothing to really find out how effective these little books are.

tudors

Overall, then, a decently presented little history, well-written by a respected historian, that will give the reader the basic facts, but doesn’t add anything new for the reader who may know a little about the subject. I may try another of these at some point in the future. They cover all kinds of topics other than history – philosophy, science, even literature – so it shouldn’t be too hard to find something I know nothing about!

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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The Curious Habits of Doctor Adams: A 1950s Murder Mystery by Jane Robins

How do you find this man – guilty or innocent?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the curious habits of dr adamsIn 1957, Dr John Adams, a general practitioner from Eastbourne, was tried for the murder of an elderly patient, ostensibly because he hoped to inherit her Rolls Royce. The investigation leading up to the trial was a press sensation, with rumours abounding that Adams had murdered as many as 300 patients. This book tells the story of the investigation and trial, and Jane Robins asks the reader to judge whether the eventual verdict was right or wrong – was Adams a mass-murderer in the mold of Harold Shipman or was he a maligned man?

After the trial the police files were sealed, but a decade ago they were re-opened following a successful Freedom of Information request. Robins has based much of the book on these files and on the record of the trial, and has also spoken to some of the children of the alleged victims. She tells us how the press reported the story, before and after the trial, and sets the book in its historical context by reminding the reader of what other events were happening around the same time as the deaths under investigation – the coronation of the Queen, the Suez crisis etc.

Eastbourne at that time was a quiet town, filled with elderly, middle-class people who still lived in a world of deference and servants. The post-war modernity that was beginning to change the urban centres hadn’t yet spread to this corner of England. The preponderance of colonels, elderly widows, wills, private nurses and inheritances could have been taken straight from the world of Agatha Christie and added to the story’s appeal for the press.

Dr John Adams
Dr John Adams

The National Health Service had been recently founded and the government was still in negotiations with general practitioners as to their status in the new set-up. Family doctors were still seen as mini-gods and of course were still directly charging their private (wealthy) patients. Adams gained the support of the British Medical Association partly as a pawn in their on-going arguments with the government and partly because an attack on any doctor was seen as an attack on all. The BMA made it clear to Adams’ Eastbourne colleagues that they should not co-operate with the investigation and they largely complied.

Adams himself was either a hard-working, caring GP who went out of his way to be available to his patients at all times of the day or night; or he was a scheming manipulative murderer who preyed on the elderly people, mainly women, who trusted him. He was either a kind man who popped in to see these often lonely people without being specifically asked; or he was an unscrupulous monster, forcing unnecessary medical treatments on people too weak and needy to refuse. He was either generous enough with his time to help these old people to manage their financial affairs; or he was an avaricious crook, using his position to force them to make him a beneficiary in their wills and then hastening their deaths to prevent them changing their minds.

Robins handles the mass of information available to her well, telling the complex story clearly and plainly. She brings the various participants to life – the police officer investigating the case, the journalists reporting on it and the various residents of Eastbourne who were either for or against Adams. The picture of Adams himself is of course crucial and Robins shows him through the eyes of both his supporters and accusers, leaving the reader to judge the truth of the man.

Jane Robins
Jane Robins

The trial itself was apparently a huge sensation, the longest murder trial that had ever been held in Britain at that time, and the description of it is fascinating. Robins shows us each witness and how they held up under the questioning of the defence team, led by noted barrister Geoffrey Lawrence. Since I didn’t know the outcome of the trial, the tension built nicely and I found myself arguing along with both prosecution and defence at different points. The judge wrote about the trial years later and this allows Robins to show us what his opinion was, not just of Adams, but also of the evidence and the conduct of the case. And finally, Robins wraps up with the aftermath of the case in terms of politics, the press and the people involved; and only then does she give us her own verdict on Adams.

All-in-all, I found this a fascinating, absorbing read. I have carefully tried to avoid spoilers since, although obviously the case and its outcome is a matter of public record, I assume there will be other people like myself who don’t know about it, in which case this can easily be read as an intriguing mystery as well as a thoroughly researched and very well told history of a true investigation. Highly recommended.

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My Heart is My Own: The Life of Mary Queen of Scots by John Guy

A sympathetic portrait…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

my heart is my ownHaving thoroughly enjoyed Guy’s biography of Thomas Becket, I had high expectations of this book, which Guy more than fulfilled. A meticulous historian who prides himself on stripping back the layers of accepted history by returning to and re-evaluating the original sources, Guy also has the skill of a true storyteller. For a non-historian like myself, it is this skill that makes his books so readable, that makes his characters emerge as rounded human beings with strengths, weaknesses and emotions.

A very sympathetic portrait, this – Guy goes into Mary’s French upbringing and education in some depth to provide support for his view of her as a strong, intelligent and ingenious woman, well prepared by her Guise relatives to take on the role of Queen. It is particularly interesting to contrast Mary’s education and preparation for monarchy with that of Mary Tudor and Elizabeth, described in Guy’s most recent book The Children of Henry VIII.

John Guy
John Guy

He fills in the background to Mary’s reign well, giving a clear picture of the divisions and ever-shifting factionalism in the Scotland of her time. At points it seems almost as if Guy himself had fallen a little in love with this woman whom he describes as ‘glamorous, intelligent, gregarious, vivacious, kind, loyal to her supporters and friends’. He works hard to clear Mary from any remaining suspicion of her involvement in Darnley’s murder and convinced this reader, at least. Guy doesn’t gloss over the unpalatable truth that Mary’s misguided relationship with Bothwell to a large degree brought about her own destruction. However he explains convincingly how Mary’s usual good judgement and ingenuity may have been affected by the events following Darnley’s death.

Overall this is not only a scholarly, well-researched book, but also a hugely enjoyable one. In my review of Guy’s Becket I said ‘For a non-historian, this is exactly how history should be presented – assume no knowledge on the part of the reader, fill in all the necessary background, give a picture of the wider society and tell the whole thing in an interesting way.‘ Guy has done exactly that again. An excellent read – highly recommended.

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The Men Who Lost America by Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy

‘These are the times that try men’s souls.’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

‘Your failure is, I am persuaded, as certain as fate. America is above your reach…her independence neither rests upon your consent, nor can it be prevented by your arms. In short, you spend your substance in vain, and impoverish yourself without hope.’

Thomas Paine, “To the People of England,” 1774

the men who lost americaIn this scholarly but very accessible book, O’Shaughnessy takes the view that Britain’s loss was not inevitable, and that in most cases the commanders and political leaders were scapegoated for the failure. He does this by taking a biographical look at the main players, political and military, on the British side; and showing the constraints that contributed to their defeat.

As a non-historian, I make my usual disclaimer that I can’t comment on the historical accuracy of the book. Prior to reading this, all I knew about the War of Independence was that for some reason the Americans took umbrage at being asked to pay for a cup of tea and decided a) to declare independence and b) to become coffee drinkers. O’Shaughnessy lets me off the hook of my own ignorance by pointing out that the Revolution hasn’t been highlighted in British syllabi over the years, since we tend to concentrate on our successes rather than our failures. He also makes the point that British historians have been less sympathetic than their American colleagues to the British leaders, although this is partly because many American historians believe, with Paine, that the British loss was inevitable.

I always enjoy biographical history and so the format of this book was perfect for me. Each section concentrates on one person (except for the Howe brothers, when O’Shaughnessy combines their stories). O’Shaughnessy tops and tails each biography with brief summaries of the person’s life and career before and after the war, but the bulk of each section concentrates on the involvement in the war itself. In each case, he explains the reasons behind any successes or failures and, as the book progresses, common themes emerge.

Lord George Germain by Romney
Lord George Germain
by Romney

The British system of government at the time led to divided responsibilities and thus to in-fighting between ambitious men. George III still had more power than a modern monarch would, especially in terms of patronage, and therefore interfered in the management of the war. The opposition was powerful and the government could never be sure of parliamentary support. There were budgetary constraints since Britain already had a high national debt. The distances involved led to continual problems with supplies and the supply chain, and for most of the war the British Navy (to my surprise) did not ‘rule the waves’ but indeed was inferior to the combined French/Spanish fleets it was facing. But perhaps most importantly of all, there was a belief that the rebels did not have the support of the majority of Americans and this led the British to place too much reliance on loyalist support which never materialised in the numbers anticipated. This belief persisted throughout despite the increasing evidence to the contrary.

I’m not sure that O’Shaughnessy convinced me that the British could have won the war. In fact, as I read, I became convinced that so many things would have had to be different to make winning a possibility that it actually surprised me that the commanders achieved the levels of success they did. So O’Shaughnessy certainly succeeded in his other aim – to show that the commanders as individuals have, on the whole, been unfairly blamed for the failures. (Except Sir George Rodney – Guilty! Guilty! Off with his head!!) As O’Shaughnessy puts it:

‘In 1778, Charles James Fox brilliantly predicted the fates of the generals who served in America. He argued that whomever the government sent out to command would suffer the same criticisms as their predecessors. They would either be accused of indolence, inactivity, or want of spirit, or of behaving like knights errant, roaming around in quest of adventure, acting too independently, and disobeying their instructions. He concluded that the generals had not miscarried for want of professional skill, bravery, or devotion to duty, “ but merely from being employed on a service, in which it was impossible to succeed.” They were set up to fail.’

The book is very well written, and is both informative and enjoyable. There are a generous number of colour plates, mainly of portraits of the leaders discussed. My only complaint is that the scope of the book means that, though I’m now much better informed about the British side of the war, I remain almost entirely ignorant of the American side, so I sincerely hope that O’Shaughnessy is working on a companion book on The Men Who Won.

Surrender at Yorktown by John Trumbull
Surrender at Yorktown
by John Trumbull

The Men Who Lost America were:

George III

Lord North – Prime Minister

The Howe brothers – General William Howe and Admiral Richard Howe, the commanders of the British Army and Navy during the first half of the war.

General John Burgoyne – the general who surrendered at Saratoga

Lord George Germain – Secretary of State for America

Sir Henry Clinton – commander of the British Army during the second half of the war

Charles, Earl Cornwallis – who surrendered at Yorktown

Admiral Sir George Rodney – failed to provide adequate support to Cornwallis at Yorktown

John Montague, Earl of Sandwich – First Lord of the Admiralty, held responsible for the failures of the fleet.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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Shakespeare’s Restless World by Neil MacGregor (BBC Audio)

srw audio‘There is a history in all men’s lives…’

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This set comprises 20 15-minute episodes in each of which Neil MacGregor (of A History of the World in 100 Objects fame) discusses an object from Shakespeare’s day, linking it to the plays or the theatres and also using it as a means to shed light on the society of the day.

The Stratford Chalice
The Stratford Chalice

MacGregor is excellent, clearly an enthusiast both for his subject and for sharing his knowledge. He introduces a range of short interviews with experts on particular subjects, and the episodes are also interspersed with acted excerpts from the plays. Each episode focuses on one object linked to an aspect of the plays – for example, a model ship leads us to the witches in MacBeth – and then MacGregor tells us of how that would have resonated at the time, when witches were still credited with the power of raising storms, causing shipwrecks etc. In another, he looks at The Tempest and a ‘magical’ mirror and then goes on to discuss the intermingling of magic with science, telling us of the ‘magus’ Dr Dee and why he was considered by many to have magical powers. A woodcut leads to the one Irish character in Shakespeare’s plays, a soldier in Henry V, and gives an opportunity for MacGregor to discuss the troubled relationship between England and Ireland during Elizabeth’s reign. Every episode, though short, is packed full of information, interestingly told.

Apprentice's Cap
Apprentice’s Cap

The disc set doesn’t include picture of the objects, but I didn’t find that a problem as MacGregor brings them to life so well. However, if you want to see them, the BBC website still has the pictures from the series, some of them zoomable. In fact, if you’re a podcast person, at the date of writing the series can still be downloaded and listened to for free from the same page.

srw bookAnd if you prefer reading to listening, there is a book of the series (which I was also lucky enough to be given by Amazon Vine UK). This is without exception the most lavishly illustrated book I own, and is a thing of beauty in itself. Not just the objects are shown, but portraits, maps, drawings and photographs. Most are in colour and many are double-page spreads. A joy for any fan of Shakespeare or Tudor history and for the very first time on this blog I’m going to mention the dreaded words ‘perfect Christmas gift’ –sorry! (But it is!)

NB This audio disc set was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK, as was the book.

Amazon UK Link Audio
Amazon UK Link Book
Amazon US Link Audio
Amazon US Link Book

5 Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond by Andrew Adonis

5-Days-in-May-The-Coalition-The day Nick Clegg got the Single Transferable Vote…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Labour peer Andrew Adonis gives us his account of the negotiations that followed the UK General election of 2010, when no party won enough seats to form a Government alone. Although not published till now, Adonis explains that the book was written near-contemporaneously and that shows through in the anger and frustration that seeps from the pages.

(For non-UK based people, coalition government is highly unusual in Britain and not much liked. The Lib-Dems, who held the balance of power, stunned many, not least their own members, by being willing to deal with the Conservatives and back an austerity plan that they had consistently campaigned against in the run up to the election. The Labour party was divided – they had comprehensively lost the election, but should they hand over to the Conservatives, their traditional class enemies, who planned major cuts in public services, or should they try to form a coalition of the ‘losers’ to keep the Brown/Darling recovery plan on track? It’s hard to explain to anyone who isn’t a UK political junkie how those 5 days played out and how they changed some of the political certainties in Britain, perhaps for ever.)

Andrew Adonis (wikipedia)
Andrew Adonis
(wikipedia)

The book is short and the main part concentrates entirely on the negotiations – Adonis assumes that readers understand the background and the main political and economic questions of the time. We get a vivid, sympathetic view of the Labour team and of the much-maligned Gordon Brown. The Conservatives are only in the background (since Labour obviously wasn’t negotiating with them) and the Lib-Dems don’t come out of the whole sorry episode well – Adonis (once a Lib-Dem himself) can’t stop some of his bitterness showing through at their turn to the right. It’s a very readable account, not bogged down with some of the self-aggrandising that can be a feature of political memoirs, and the reader gets a real feel for the stress and exhaustion in the Labour camp.

In the last 40 pages, Adonis looks back at his account with the benefit of distance and is endearingly honest about his own bias in the first, contemporaneous section:

‘5 days in May was written in the heat of battle. Re-reading it after nearly three years, it reminds me of a general’s despatch after one of Britain’s all too common defeats in the Napoleonic wars, dictated while the smoke was still swirling and the dead and maimed being taken off the field. It is vivid, partisan, and angry about the perfidy of Albion’s supposed allies, in this case Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems.’

Adonis assesses why the Lib-Dems acted as they did, concluding that both Clegg and David Laws (their chief negotiator) were always more right-wing than they seemed or than the rest of their party. He also discusses the benefits or otherwise of coalition and concludes that Labour must keep the door open to a future coalition with the Lib Dems, however bitter that pill would be to swallow, but must first and foremost try to win outright.

Nick Clegg and David Cameron 'you never promised me a rose garden...'
Nick Clegg and David Cameron
‘you never promised me a rose garden…’

I found this an excellent read, biased yes (but then I’m on the same side as Adonis so that didn’t bother me too much) but revealing and blessedly short and to the point. Is it still a democracy when one man (in this case Nick Clegg) gets to decide who will govern for five years regardless of pre-election promises? A question that will become more and more relevant in Britain as the old two-party system fades further into the distance with each passing year. Highly recommended for left-leaning UK political nerds – not sure how interesting it will be to other people though!

Gordon Brown leaves Downing Street...
Gordon Brown leaves Downing Street…

PS I had to laugh at the subliminal advertising on the book jacket – Brown faded into the background, then Clegg, then Cameron; and finally, right at the front, Ed Miliband! A triumph of hope over experience, perhaps?

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Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel, Victim: A 900-Year-Old Story Retold by John Guy

A full and rounded picture…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

thomas becketWritten in a way that is very accessible to the non-historian, this book gives a full and rounded picture of the life of Thomas Becket and the politics of the court of Henry II.

Throughout the book, the author fills out the political and social background to the events of Becket’s life, so that we see the contrast between Becket’s relatively humble origins (coming from what would now be thought of as the middle-class) and the exalted court and religious circles in which he later moved. Guy suggests that his lack of an aristocratic background played its part in Henry’s attitude towards him and subsequent fury at Becket’s refusal to submit to his will.

thomas murder2As someone who knew only the bare bones of the Becket story, I felt that the author explained very clearly the different political strands that contributed to his eventual fate – Henry’s ambitions in Europe, the involvement of King Louis of France, the ongoing schism in the papacy. Relying throughout on original sources, Guy gave a convincing picture of how Becket was seen by his contemporaries, both friend and enemy. He also looked at how Becket’s story had been written over the centuries, pointing out where he felt that inaccuracies had crept in and going back to the original sources to support his own interpretation.

John Guy
John Guy

But although this is clearly a scholarly, well-researched book, it is so well written that it reads almost like a novel; the lead up and execution of the murder were particularly finely done. For a non-historian like myself, this is exactly how history should be presented – assume no knowledge on the part of the reader, fill in all the necessary background, give a picture of the wider society and tell the whole thing in an interesting way. An excellent read – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

winter kingThe Hybrid Rose…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Like many people, I have always had an interest in perhaps the most famous of all the Kings, Henry VIII. However, prior to reading this book, I really knew nothing about the reign of his father, Henry VII, or indeed of Henry VIII’s early years. This book has helped fill much of that gap in my knowledge. As a non-historian, I wouldn’t pretend to be able to comment on the historical accuracy, but I found the book very well written, the arguments convincing and the whole a very interesting read.

Henry VII
Henry VII

Penn paints a picture of a monarch who spent his early years fighting first to gain and then to hold the throne at the tail end of the Wars of the Roses and who in his later years became obsessed with the need to consolidate his position and ensure an undisputed dynastic inheritance for his son. The author’s study of how Henry VII used bonds and fines as a method of exerting control over the aristocracy and of curtailing the power of any potential rivals was fascinating although, for my personal taste, a little over-detailed at times. I found it both interesting and unexpected that Henry VII chose to do this by financial control rather than by the axe later so beloved of Henry VIII.

Thomas Penn (photo: Justine Stoddart)
Thomas Penn
(photo: Justine Stoddart)

The most interesting parts of the book to me were those that dealt with the young Princes Arthur and Henry and with poor Catherine of Aragon, used for years as a pawn in a game of diplomatic chess. The author paints a sympathetic picture of how powerless Catherine was in influencing and determining her own fate – not unusual, of course, but often left undescribed. Penn also gives some great descriptions of state occasions: the marriage of Catherine to Arthur and later to Henry VIII, coronations, funerals, and the socially important jousting tournaments. We also learn who were the influences on Henry VIII’s education, both intellectual and chivalrous, and learn about the early careers of some of those who would be so significant in his later reign – More, Wolsey et al.

 

The Tudor Rose (wikimedia)
The Tudor Rose
(wikimedia)

The book is very much a biography rather than a social history and as such concentrates almost exclusively on royalty, aristocracy and the rich. Personally, I would have liked the author to shed a bit more light on how Henry VII’s reign impacted on the commoners. But that small criticism aside, I found this an entertaining and educational read, accessible to the non-historians amongst us, and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Tudor period.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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The Children of Henry VIII by John Guy

Children of Henry VIII“Some are born great…”

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

I first encountered John Guy through his wonderful biography of Thomas Becket and I give him the credit for re-awakening my interest in reading history after a lengthy gap. As well as being a first-rate historian, he has the true skill of the storyteller, managing to turn his thorough and extensive research into an accessible and enjoyable read for the non-academic. In this book he tackles the subject of Henry VIII’s struggle to produce an heir who could ensure the continuance of his dynasty. This is very much a personal history of the children, though because of their positions as potential heirs, there is also much about the politics of the time, particularly the religious machinations of this divided family.

John Guy
John Guy

Guy goes into considerable depth about the children’s early years telling us who was given charge of their upbringing and education. He describes the differences in education of the males, Edward and Henry Fitzroy, to the females, Mary and Elizabeth; showing that the boys were trained in those skills which were deemed necessary in a king, such as the ability to give public speeches, while the girls were restricted to moral and religious works, on the basis laid down by the scholar Vives that a woman should hear and speak only ‘what pertains to the fear of God’. However, he also produces some evidence to show that the girls’ friends and supporters may have found ways to supplement these restrictions.

Guy also shows Henry’s inconsistent treatment of his children, first humiliating Mary by raising the prospect of the illegitimate Fitzroy as heir, then by making her play second fiddle to Elizabeth during Anne Boleyn’s short reign. The declaration of both his daughters as illegitimate, his treatment of their mothers and the way he brought them in and out of favour depending on who was Queen at the time impacted heavily on both, as did his will declaring that they could only marry with the agreement of the counsellors he appointed before his death. But with the early death of Fitzroy, Henry was eventually forced to accept the rights of both his daughters to be in the line of succession in the event that Edward should die childless.

Happy Families?
Happy Families?
Although most of the book is about the children’s early years, Guy finishes with a fairly quick romp through each reign, again concentrating more on the personal than the political except where they were intertwined. He points out that Henry’s tragedy remains that, for all his efforts to secure his dynasty, none of his children produced heirs, so that on the death of Elizabeth in 1603 the Tudor era came to an end.

As always with Guy’s books, this one is very well written and a pleasure to read. There may not be much new here but the format Guy has chosen lets us see the family dynamics more than biographies of the individuals usually do. I felt the adult years were somewhat rushed and really only there to take the book to a conclusion, and I felt Guy surprisingly let Elizabeth off the hook very easily on the subject of the suppression of the Catholics during her reign (for more of which I recommend John Cooper’s biography of Walsingham, The Queen’s Agent). But I enjoyed the detailed look at the childhood of these major figures in English history and heartily recommend this book to anyone interested in the Tudor period.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

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Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United Nations by Charlene Mires

Dividing the nation…

😐 😐 😐

Capital of the WorldIn this book, Mires shows the ridiculous lengths gone to by some small town and large city politicians to promote their towns as the site for the new UN organisation at the end of the Second World War. The decision having been made to site it in the US, mainly because of the huge scale of destruction in post-war Europe, towns of all sizes and prominence throughout the States began to vie with each other to become the ‘Capital of the World’. The UN played its part in whipping up this ‘boosterism’ by constantly changing its collective mind on what kind of site it wanted. As towns, cities and communities across the nation raced to put in their pitches, commonsense was frequently bypassed and denial of problems over race, gangsterism and lack of amenities ran rife. The government of the USA had decided to take a position of neutrality over the location, so it was left to the other nations to insist that the site must be somewhere where foreign delegates could get to with relative ease and where they were at least able to dine with each other regardless of their skin colour. Hence east, rather than west or south.

The final decision...
The final decision…
Very US-centric, perhaps this book would be of more interest to an American reader than this Brit. It is filled with portraits of mid-century local politicians from all over the USA, and detailed descriptions of their self-aggrandizing plans to be Capital of the World. Lengthy passages are given to each campaign and, perhaps because of my unfamiliarity with the people and places involved, I sometimes found it hard to maintain my interest. The book is clearly well-researched and is well written, and I felt the author did as good a job as possible with the material available. There were a few humorous moments as Mires told us of some of the excesses of the various campaigns and some interesting details about the historical backgrounds of some of the towns. But on the whole there was too much detail for my taste about the minutiae of some of the booster campaigns and the people involved in them. It may well be because of my own parochialism but as the search began to centre on the bigger cities, and in particular on New York, I found my interest steadily growing.

Overall, a well written account of a unique point in history, showing ‘boosterism’ at what may have been its peak, but probably mostly relevant to an American readership.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

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Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain by John Darwin

Accessible, edifying and enjoyable…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Unfinished Empire3For the non-academic reader, any history book has to be first and foremost readable and this one most certainly is. Darwin has taken the huge subject of the British Empire and broken it down into a series of themed chapters that makes it accessible and enjoyable reading. For example, one chapter is devoted to Traffic and Trade, while another discusses Ruling Methods. This method allows Darwin to show how similarities and differences in the approach to controlling the empire depended on local circumstances; and to give a very clear picture of the global and historical context, placing the British Empire as one of a line of empires that have risen and fallen throughout history. In fact, while obviously the book is primarily about the British Empire, its scope and clarity of presentation made me feel almost as if I were reading a history of the world over the last 500 years.

British EmpireDarwin tries successfully on the whole to maintain a neutral stance on the ethics of empire; if he is taking a position at all, it is that the empire was so differentiated and came about for such complex historical reasons that to argue that it was in some way an evil aberration is overly simplistic. Instead he shows, with great lucidity and considerable depth, the who, why, where, when and how; and then leaves the reader, armed with that information, to consider whether the effects were all bad, all good or somewhere in-between.

British Empire2If I had any criticism, it would be that at points I wanted maps as a visual prompt to show the reach of both the formal and informal areas of influence at different points in history – the maps included were interesting, but concentrated more on specifics, like shipping routes or distribution of military resources. Darwin suggests that looking at the bright red zones on maps gives a misleading picture of the empire and he has persuaded me of that, but for those of us who can never quite remember where, say, Borneo actually is, they do help! However that is a very small criticism of what is an excellent book, thoroughly enjoyable and immensely edifying, that has left me very much better informed about the political and historical context, the rise and decline, and the global impact of and on the empire – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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The Queen’s Agent by John Cooper

Driven by faith…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

The Queen's AgentThe problem with Walsingham, as a subject for biography, is the shortage of documentation, particularly relating to his private life. As Cooper explains, his private papers were taken along with his public papers after his death for the benefit of future secretaries, but later most of the private papers were destroyed as they were considered unimportant. This means that Cooper has to work hard to fill in Walsingham’s early life and give us a flavour of the man. Although he succeeds to an extent, I didn’t feel that Walsingham came truly to life as a full, rounded personality in the book.

Mary, Queen of Scots
Mary, Queen of Scots
However, Cooper gives us a clear, well written and very readable account of the main political issues of Walsingham’s time as secretary, including of course his role in the torture and death of many English Catholics while stemming the threat of Catholic revolt, as well as the part he played in the death of Mary, Queen of Scots. He explains very clearly the religious and political upheavals across Europe and a chapter is devoted to the Spanish invasion that never was. He also describes Walsingham’s involvement in the settlement of Ireland, a problem that remained unresolved throughout his career; and relates the part Walsingham played in promoting the exploration and settlements in America and elsewhere that went on to become the beginnings of empire, which was something I hadn’t been aware of.

Cecil, Elizabeth R & Walsingham
Cecil, Elizabeth R & Walsingham
Much of the book, though, concentrates on what Walsingham is perhaps best remembered for: his role as spymaster and ruthless interrogator. Here Cooper has gathered a huge amount of detail about the murky and convoluted world that these double- and sometimes triple-agents were playing throughout the courts of Europe, and shows evidence of occasions when Walsingham was involved in what we would now think of as entrapment. Walsingham’s uneasy relationship with Elizabeth is well portrayed and Cooper shows that he often had to subsidise the expenses of his spies from his own pocket due to Elizabeth’s reluctance to pay. This gives weight to the picture Cooper paints of Walsingham as a man driven, not by hope of patronage or reward, but by his patriotism and above all by his faith.

Overall I found this a very interesting read, with Walsingham set well into his historical context, but though Cooper has shed a considerable amount of light on him, he remains a rather shadowy figure – which in the end seems quite appropriate. Recommended.

NB This review is of a proof copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

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Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace by Kate Summerscale

Mrs Robinson's DisgraceA woman’s place… 😐 😐 😐

Isabella Robinson’s diary of her adulterous affair with Dr Edward Lane provides Kate Summerscale with a starting point to examine the social attitudes surrounding marriage, adultery and female sexuality in the early Victorian period.

Summerscale covers a lot of ground in considerable depth showing how attitudes and the law relating to marriage and divorce were at that time skewed in favour of men. Isabella’s husband is not only unpleasant but also controls the money that Isabella brought to the marriage. Isabella retreats into a world of romantic longings that she somewhat foolishly recorded in a diary. When Henry found and read the diary, he used it as evidence to sue for divorce. Did Isabella really have an affair or was she simply indulging her imagination? For the purpose of the book, that question is largely irrelevant since the idea of a woman having such thoughts was considered almost as scandalous as the act of adultery itself.

There’s no doubt a lot of research has gone into this book but I found it didn’t grab and hold my attention. Much of the ground Summerscale covers is neither new nor surprising and the concentration on one woman’s story meant that there was a great deal of stuff about her family history and background that really added nothing much to either the basic story or to the examination of prevalent attitudes. Isabella comes over as fairly unattractive and self-centred, and the romantic sighings and longings of this middle-aged woman’s diary suggested that, whether adulterous or not, she tended towards the mental instability suggested by her lawyers as a defence for her behaviour. My failure to warm to Isabella meant that for me there was no emotional heart to the book, leaving it as a fairly dry social history.

I listened to this book on the unabridged Audible download version, narrated by Jenny Agutter. Her reading was very good and she tried her best to breathe some much-needed life into the many characters, some of them exceptionally dull, who played their part in Isabella’s story. Overall, however, though worthy, I found the book rather lacklustre.

Amazon UK Link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R3HDVDYCYRHNIH

Amazon US Link: http://www.amazon.com/review/R1G1AAI48C3MPS